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Peru - the pleasure and the plane

Mark Wareham reports on the highs and lows of a trip to South America with his wife and two young children

I love flying. The further the better. Sealed in splendid isolation from the real world, you plunge on into the unknown, oblivious to any war, famine and pestilence occurring 38,000ft below. Your chief concerns are:

1) How long till the next meal/drink/bag of cheesy snacks?
2) Is the movie any good?
3) Will I get some shuteye?

These three crop up in the same order every two hours until you land. Which means on an average flight to Australia you've put on a couple of kilos, seen enough rubbish films to keep you out of the video store for the next six months, and had a solid two nights' worth of kip. Fantastic. Away with your jetlag.

That all changes, of course, when you have kids. Not that anyone bothers to tell you. Typically, most first-time parents stay at home in shock for the first three months, then spend the next three months in recovery. By the time the child is six months old, they're desperate for a break. Most probably a week somewhere in the Med. Baby goes too, and it's normally a breeze. They sleep on the plane, hopefully don't get too sunburned on the beach, and you're home before they know it.

"Every day, new cousins would materialise, eager to meet the little English 'prince and princess'."

But then comes your big mistake. Or, let's be specific here, my big mistake. You get over-confident. Cocky, even. We'd talked about it for ages. And now it was time to go. To Peru. To visit my wife's family. Cost? An arm and a leg. But was that going to put us off? Not a chance.

Cannily, my wife had flown out a week or so ahead of me with Claudia, our soon-to-be one year-old. The journey had taken place in a dream-like trance, all 20 hours of it. She dimly recalled changing flights in Colombia – just about the only time their blissful slumber had been punctuated.

We followed, dutifully, father and three-year-old son, completely unprepared for the madness that was about to descend. Had I brought more than one book? No. More than one toy? No. Enough kiddie food? No. And so it went on, one after the other, a catalogue of parental incompetence. Change of clothes, Walkman, games, jigsaw? No, no, no, no.

Two hours into the flight, and the boy's not going to take it any more. He's up now, scrambling over my sleepy body and into the aisle. Oh that's good, there are a couple of little girls his age a few seats up. They give him chocolate. Lots. "That's enough, Lorenzo. You'll be sick." This Bordeaux's making me drowsy. I'm slipping in and out of sleeeeep. He's running around now, playing hide 'n' seek behind the hostesses' curtain with the two little girls. They're shrieking, being loud, having a ball. I gratefully fall back into the arms of my wine-induced coma.

A hostess is shaking my shoulder. "Sir, wake up please." She looks at me pitifully. I'm dribbling. "Some passengers are complaining about the noise. I'm afraid you'll have to return your child to his seat." Lorenzo, red-faced, chocolate daubed on his cheeks like war paint, stands behind her looking pleased with himself. Behind him, a severe-looking woman, her prematurely silver hair gathered in a bun, is admonishing me. "Really. Can't you keep them under control? It's just too much." She whirls round and marches back to her seat. I spy a chocolate smear on the side of her grey pleated skirt and smile.

The journey continued in much the same cheerful vein right into the next hemisphere. The flight had left London at 10am, and Lorenzo didn't so much as take 40 winks for the first 12 hours. Of course, he passed into a deep sleep just before we landed. Which meant that I had to stagger through transit at Bogota with a heavy bag over each shoulder and an unconscious 20kg child in my arms.

Finally, on the last leg down to Lima, I caught up on my sleep and we arrived in one piece. The worst flight of my life, no question. But hell (and it certainly had been), we had landed in Peru.

The first week flashed by in a frenzy of familial duty. In England my children have one aunt, one uncle and one cousin. Here, they had suddenly acquired a phalanx of exotic relatives. Every day, new cousins would materialise, eager to meet the little English "prince and princess". And yet, despite being spoiled rotten, they took it all in their unquestioning stride - as kids do.

By the second week, we had tired of the endless rounds of socialising. It was time to become more adventurous. The children had spent seven days in this potentially infectious Third World country without so much as a squit or a cough to show for it. This was better than London. Claudia, fresh from her first birthday party, was the big worry healthwise, what with her propensity for picking up interesting objects - dustballs, an old tissue, a dead cockroach, maybe - and sticking them straight into her mouth. Yet even she remained disease-free.

Initially, we stuck to the safer, more affluent areas of town, but soon enough we were venturing into the rougher parts. Peru was in the throes of election fever and, in hindsight, downtown Lima was probably not the safest place for toddlers. We had just witnessed a small demo in one of the main squares and, given the general political unrest, decided to move on. Rounding a corner into a sidestreet not far from the presidential palace, we were alarmed to find people running towards us, coughing and spluttering, and waving us back. Too late. I saw the soldiers a split second before the tear gas hit the back of my throat. Scooping the kids up, we ran back to the square, eyes streaming, and regrouped. We'd  got off relatively lightly, though had certainly been given a fright. Exciting though it was, we opted not to wait for the tanks and dived into a taxi. What can I say? If you must bring your kids into a riot zone, at least take a handkerchief.

"As we bumped down the unmade road, I could see Lorenzo's eyes widening. This was 'Three Little Pigs' country - some houses made of straw, some from sticks, and just a few dotted with bricks. But even the three little pigs hadn't had to use cardboard, unlike some of these desperate people."

Having survived a brush with third-world politics, it was time to take the next logical step and show my son a harsher reality. When living in Peru, I had on occasions visited El Nazareno, one of the many shanty towns that squat on the dusty dunes circling Lima. Now we were returning, bearing gifts (pencils, toys, sweets) for the family of Giuliana, a little girl who was sponsored by my mother. As we bumped down the unmade road, I could see Lorenzo's eyes widening. This was "Three Little Pigs" country - some houses made of straw, some from sticks, and just a few dotted with bricks. But even the three little pigs hadn't had to use cardboard, unlike some of these desperate people.

We were given the royal treatment inside Giuliana's spartan shack - Coca Cola all round - and then posed for photos with her tiny mother who was late-30s going on 50, such were the rigours of her life, bringing up four kids alone, the father long since departed. I had wondered at the wisdom of taking my son into a potential health hazard such as this. But it was made worthwhile by the warmth of the reception given us as we toured the settlement, and none more so than in the school where we were mobbed as I struggled to give an impromptu English class. By the time we left, I had been transformed into some messianic figure, a trail of children in my wake, and Lorenzo surrounded by a sea of quizzical faces.

Naturally, the family couldn't continue in such rude health, and sure enough, on the penultimate day, our luck ran out. A trip outside the city to a sports club proved our undoing. The sun was much fiercer in these Andean foothills and so Lorenzo, pasty and delicate, was Factor 24-ed from head to toe. Claudia, robust and much darker, a Peruvian in all but passport, could make do with a sunhat, even if she wouldn't keep it on for more than two seconds. Before the day was out, she had sunstroke. And the 24-hour slog back to the UK loomed the next day.

This journey was far more fraught than the trifles of two weeks ago. While the eldest slept soundly most of the way, the baby alternately howled and whimpered for an entire day. By the time we changed flights at Bogota, we were worried enough to raise the airport's air ambulance service. My wife returned with a prescription - Claudia had apparently developed an allergy to the medicine she had been given the day before in Peru - and I was escorted from the transit area to the airport chemist by an official. But when we got there it was closing and they wouldn't let us in. "Why so early?", I asked. "Bank holiday," he explained. Of course it was.

The official volunteered to leave the airport and find a chemist, so he stung me for a ridiculous amount of dollars and I told him the plane left in an hour. Fully expecting never to clap eyes on him again, I returned to transit.

One minute before our final call, he came racing into the hall holding aloft a small white packet. Speechless, we boarded the plane and prepared for another 14 hours of cabin fever.

Without doubt, the worst parts of the holiday had been the long haul there and back. To anyone with young ones contemplating such a feat of endurance, my advice is to arm yourself to the back teeth with sufficient entertainment and comestibles to distract mind and stomach for at least 24 hours. And then, when you think you're sorted, go out and double your supplies again. Because, unless you know someone with a teleporter who can beam you in and out of your distant destination, that's the only way you'll emerge from the plane alive and ready to take on the world.

For hotel suggestions in Peru, go to South America in the where to go guide

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